HC Deb 08 June 1962 vol 661 cc813-22

11.5 a.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. John Profumo)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I would like to make a statement about the circumstances in which the recent courts martial at Hilden Camp, British Army of the Rhine took place.

On 28th January, 1962, there was an incident in Hilden Camp, near Düisseldorf, which resulted in two men being tried by general court martial on charges including incitement to mutiny and assault. The trial took place at Hilden Barracks on 30th March. Both men had legal aid and pleaded not guilty on the main charges. They were found guilty and sentenced to five years' and three years' imprisonment respectively, and to be discharged with ignominy. Both men have given notice of petition to the Army Council.

Allegations which I have read to the effect that the incident and the trial were deliberately hushed up are totally without foundation. No decision of this sort was taken either in my Department or at any level in British Army of the Rhine, and, in fact, members of the public were present throughout the whole trial.

Not only were the prescribed requirements, which are akin to those of the other two Services and to civil practice, carried out, but there was no departure whatever from the other usual arrangements designed to help the Press.

When the British Embassy was first established at Bonn, my Department, at the special request of the Press, agreed to station a military public relations officer in the Embassy there. Ever since it has been the custom, among other things, for a list of forthcoming Army and Royal Air Force courts martial to be displayed at that office. All journalists who can produce bona fide passes to enter the Embassy have easy access to this room which is close to the entrance. In addition, it is customary for correspondents to ring up the public relations officer there who gives information about pending courts martial on the telephone if asked.

I stress that these arrangements, about which there has been no previous general complaint over all these years, are additional to the formal requirements laid down in Army Council Instructions whereby notices of forthcoming courts martial are displayed in a public place outside the relevant military establishment.

As well as the notice being posted outside Hilden Camp, the usual information about this court martial would have been available to any correspondent who had inquired either from the Bonn office or from Headquarters, British Army of the Rhine.

Arising from the same incident, four other soldiers were subsequently tried by District Court Martial on lesser charges, to which they pleaded guilty and were given sentences of imprisonment varying from 12 to 6 months.

Although I am quite satisfied that there has been no secrecy in these cases, I am most anxious that the Press and the public should have all reasonable access to courts martial. I will therefore examine whether any improvement can be made even now in our existing arrangements.

Mrs. Castle

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for making that statement, might I ask him whether he is satisfied that the present arrangements for informing the Press are satisfactory, in view of the fact that it appears from what he has said that access to prior information that a court martial is to take place can be obtained only by someone holding a security pass? Would not it be better for steps to be taken to inform the Press direct at Bonn when courts martial of this seriousness are to take place?

Might I also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that Members of Parliament still do not know the home addresses of these men, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), for instance, who cannot be here, is very anxious to know whether one of these soldiers is a constituent of hers. Could stops be taken to inform Members on this point? Will permission be given to Members to visit these men in prison if they so desire? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to see that ex parte statements are not made by commanding officers on cases that are sub judice?

Mr. Profumo

I will try to answer the hon. Lady's questions, and I respect her motives in asking them. The statement made by the commanding officer was made because the Press had asked for facilities to see the commanding officer and in view of the really serious allegations against the soldiers that there had been secrecy, he was authorised to give the facts of the case, but he did not discuss in any way the merits of the evidence or of the sentences.

Certainly I will give permission for any hon. Member to visit these soldiers while they are in prison if this is required. I am sorry that the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) does not know whether one of her constituents is involved. In all my experience, I have found that the usual custom is for constituents to get in touch with a Member of Parliament and I do not know whether this constituent wants the publicity of getting in touch with his Member or not. But if the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) is troubled, I will certainly give in private the addresses of these soldiers.

It has always been the custom, and Queen's Regulations lay down, that disclosure of addresses of soldiers should be prohibited, whether they are serving or not serving. This is done to protect the privacy of the individual. Everything proper was done to let the Press know, barring spoon-feeding, but I will have another look at this. One does not have to possess a security pass to secure the information. Even in one's own bedroom one can lift up a hand to the telephone and ring up the information officer and he will give the information.

Mr. Allaun

Could I have your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, to put several questions to the Minister?

First, will the Minister have a searching inquiry made into conditions, the food, and particularly the superior officers and the discipline at Hilden? Why did the War Office state on Wednesday night that there would be such an inquiry and this morning we have had no confirmation of it? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the fact that this case is sub judice is preventing several hon. Members from presenting evidence which exists to show that there is another side of the case, but that this fact is not inhibiting the commanding officer who is gravely prejudicing the case by his public statement to the Press?

Lastly, does the Minister propose to take any action regarding Lieut.-Colonel Kemball, who is the commanding officer, and who was no doubt responsible for signing the charge sheet and for the prosecution and yet who can do something which is opposed to all the basic principles of justice in prejudicing the case in this way?

Mr. Profumo

I will try to answer all those questions. I am asked about the conditions and the food, and so on, in Hilden Camp. I gave a Written Answer yesterday, as soon as it came on the Order Paper, to a Question by the hon. Member. I gave the answer to the House and I did not want to delay the House by giving it again today. Why I should confirm what is in HANSARD and reported in the newspapers I simply do not know. I will see whether I think it is necessary to have an inquiry and I am not prepared at this stage to cast any slur, such as the hon. Member, either intentionally or unintententionally, is casting on the commanding officer. That I will not tolerate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] He did nothing that he was not authorised to do. I am not prepared to cast any slur in advance on conditions in the camp until we have had a thorough investigation to see if any inquiry is needed.

I am asked why, when the thing was sub judice, a statement was made. The question of its being sub judice is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, in this House and not for me. I will not argue that point, but I would say in his defence that the commanding officer was authorised to see the Press for the reasons I have told the House. He said, as far as I am aware, nothing more than would be known to any member of the public who had taken the trouble to attend the court martial, and therefore I do not believe that he has done anything to prejudice the situation at present. I am not prepared to have slurs of this sort cast on the commanding officer, who was only doing his duty and who was not responsible for anything more than the accusations. The whole thing has been done in a proper way. The court martial was carried out in public and in a proper manner and has been confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine, but it is now subject to appeal and I must not say any more.

Mr. Shinwell

There has been allegations about the number of courts martial in this particular camp over the last 12 months or so. Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many courts martial have been held during that period? Is there any truth in the allegations that the number has been somewhat excessive? Since the commanding officer has gone into the public Press and made some reference to the nature of the crime that these men were alleged to have committed—and I say "alleged" because the matter is again before the Army Council—can the right hon. Gentleman say what was the nature of these offences which justified so severe a sentence?

Mr. Profumo

I really must not—although I am tempted to do so—answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions on that, as this matter is the subject of an appeal to the Army Council, of which I am President, and I shall have to look through all this evidence. It would be wholly wrong in the circumstances, with respect to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not think that at the moment in the House, since Mr. Speaker thas ruled that the matter is sub judice, I can go any further than I have done. But I should like to give an answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. In Hilden Camp over the last twelve months, 15 district courts martial have been held, involving 17 soldiers altogether. I ought to put this in perspective and say that over the last four years in B.A.O.R. the average figure for courts martial works out at approximately one per thousand men per month and I really do not think that is wrong.

Mr. Wigg

These soldiers were placed under arrest on 28th January and tried on 30th March and the sentence was not promulgated until 21st May. Were the soldiers under close arrest throughout? My second question arises from that. Were they free during the whole of that period, had they so wished, to communicate with their families or with M.P.s? Thirdly, during that period were they free to make proper arrangements for their trial? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the rules of procedure, a court martial, being a statutory court, must be held in open court unless there is application to hold the trialin camera.Was such an application made either to the convening officer or at the opening of the court martial proceedings?

Mr. Profumo

The answer to each of the first three questions is "Yes, Sir". They were under close arrest. They were perfectly free to get in touch with their parents or M.P.s, and if they did not know their Members we would have helped them to find out, and they were free to make arrangements for their trial and defence. I have already told the House that they had legal aid so to do. Since I have explained to the House that the trial was not held in camera but in open court and as members of the public were there, I cannot imagine that anyone applied for the court to be held in camera.

Mr. J. Morris

Without commenting in any way on the trial or casting any slurs, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the very full statement he has made about the arrangements for the Press? In the light of the last few words of that statement, may I ask what steps he is taking to improve these arrangements? Will he bear in mind, when attempting to improve them, that the cardinal principle of British justice is that not only should justice be done but it should be seen to be done?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm my recollection that in my earlier days, when I was forced to practise as a young subaltern in courts martial in this country, the newspapers were specifically informed of forthcoming courts martial and of the charges which would be laid? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear that in mind, and even though this is an overseas station, could the national newspapers be specifically informed of courts martial as one of the improvements he is considering?

Having regard to the statement he made yesterday, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun), that he would consider an inquiry into conditions at Hilden Camp, may I ask, again without casting any slurs whatsoever, whether he will bear in mind the statement made by Colonel Kemball to the Daily Telegraph yesterday about the varying standards of food at different stations? Is he aware that the colonel is reported as saying that: It was not as good as in Plymouth, which the Battalion had left in November, but was 'above average; certainly better than at some of my earlier stations.'"? Will the right hon. Gentleman inquire about those earlier stations and take such steps as are necessary?

Mr. Profumo

I am very satisfied with the standard of feeding in the Army at the present time, and if the hon. Gentleman cares to visit any units, I am sure he, too, will be very satisfied. I also notice from what Colonel Kemball said when talking to the newspapers that on the particular day when the incident took place there were six or seven choices of sweet. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can rival that in any other walk of life, but it seems to me that, on the whole, the standard of feeding in the Army is good.

I have said that I will see if there is any reason to make an inquiry, though I do not want the House to feel that I believe there is any such reason. On the question of informing the Press, I have the impression that we have done everything that we can to inform the Press. I feel there is a limit beyond which it would be wrong to go in using public money to give newspapers the information they require, but the information has always been available. We have had no complaints, and, as I say, one can get the information; it can be seen on the notice board. This applies to the Royal Air Force and the Army. I am going to see whether I am right in thinking that we are in line with practice in civil life and in the other Services. If there is something that we can properly do, I will see that it is done, but we already give notice of courts martial, what the cases are going to be and, indeed what the charges are. If we can go further than this without actually spoonfeeding the Press, which I am sure the House does not want, I will look into it.

Mr. Burden

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the very circumstances of these courts martial and the statement made here in this House this morning will alert the Press, and, in fact, will very likely implement any measure my right hon. Friend might take and remove any need for increasing costs of Press public relations to the Services?

Mr. Profumo

I think my hon. Friend is right. What happened is that the Press missed a trick here. They did not see it. I am sorry, but we were not trying to hide anything. I will look into it.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is an important principle of the administration of criminal law that where there is no publicity there is no justice? When he is reviewing the arrangements to inform the Press and the public about forthcoming courts martial, will he consider the arrangements in the home Forces? I have heard complaints that there is a good deal of—no doubt, not deliberate—covering-up of trials and that there is some difficulty in securing advance notice. Although I sympathise with the view that there can be an excess of publicity, and I am not sure that it would be in the interests of the accused to have a massive barrage of publicity about a forthcoming trial, nevertheless does the Minister agree that it is important to see that certainly the basic minimum arrangements are made sufficient to ensure that anyone who wants to attend can do so and that sufficient advance information is available to make that possible?

Mr. Profumo

Of course, I agree generally with what the hon. and learned Gentleman says. My view is that we are giving the basic minimum information required and more. The fact that we have had no complaint since the Embassy was started at Bonn shows that the fault was not in my Department. If the hon. Gentleman has in mind any particular case where he thinks something has gone wrong, he has only to let me know. He need not even put down a Question. I will then consider the matter. But nothing wrong has been done in this case. There has been no secrecy. Indeed, members of the public were there during the five days on the trial, but not the Press.

Mr. Shinwell

May I raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Shinwell

When I asked the right hon. Gentleman a question about the nature of the crimes that are alleged to have been committed, he sheltered himself—I do not use that word offensively; it is the only word I can think of at the moment—behind the principle of sub judice. I should like to put this point of order to you. Does this principle of sub judice, which we all recognise in normal cases, apply to everybody and not only to Members of this House? As I understand it, from reading the Press, the commanding officer—and I make no allegations against him—went to the Press and apparently indicated the nature of the crime which had been committed. If that is so, where does the principle of sub judice come in? If hon. Members are to be inhibited from expressing opinions or from asking questions about the nature of the crimes, and yet the commanding officer can communicate with the Press and make a statement about it, are we not in some difficulty?

Mr. Speaker

Unhappily, I do not remember whether the right hon. Gentle- man was here when we discussed this precise point yesterday. I am afraid my answer to him must be that whatever be the rule of sub judice applicable in the case of commanding officers, that could scarcely be a point of order for me.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House, as I am the oustodian of other hon. Member's business, that we really have had, if I may say so, a kind of irregular debate on this matter for twenty minutes?

Mr. Shinwell

On this precise point, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will make inquiries as to whether the commanding officer actually made a statement to the Press about the nature of the crimes?

Mr. Profumo

We are in danger now of placing the commanding officer in the wrong perspective. I authorised the commanding officer to agree to many requests from the Press that they should go and talk to him. I did so in view of these serious allegations of secrecy, and I laid down exactly what the commanding officer could properly do. He did it. All he did was to disclose what was in the charge sheet, what had already been promulgated, what could have been seen and heard throughout the trial, and as far as I know he did nothing further. I know that he was acting in accordance with his instructions. If there is any accusation to be made, it must be against me.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

We must get on.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Redmayne.]

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